Outback Queensland, the vast area west of the state’s heavily touristed coast, is sparsely populated by tenacious farming communities swinging precariously between famine and survival, and a dramatic change from Queensland’s lush, wet tropics. The population is concentrated in the relatively fertile highlands along the Great Dividing Range, which run low behind the coast; on the far side, expansive, empty plains slide over a hot horizon into the fringes of South Australia and the Northern Territory. The only places attracting Australian or international visitors in any numbers are Longreach, with its mega-museum the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and the Central Highlands oasis of Carnarvon Gorge. But opportunities for exploration are immense, with precious stones, fossils, waterholes and Aboriginal art in abundance. The region has also produced two of Australia’s best-known icons: Banjo Paterson first performed Waltzing Matilda in a Winton hotel, and the same town was the birthplace of Qantas airlines before its launch at nearby Longreach.
Choosing where to go is usually determined by the most convenient starting point. Main roads and trains head west from the coast at Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns; buses from Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville cross Outback Queensland as they head interstate, but otherwise public transport is poor. If you’re driving, your vehicle must be well maintained and you should carry essential spares, as even main centres often lack replacement parts. A number of sealed roads are single-vehicle width – pull over to let traffic pass or overtake, and pull off completely to give way to road trains.
Western summers frequently hamper or prohibit travel, as searing temperatures and violent flash floods regularly isolate areas (especially in the Channel Country on the far side of the Great Dividing Range) for days or weeks on end. Even settlements on higher ground see little mercy from the rage of tropical storms; heavy rain in January 2011 lashed southeast Queensland, the floodwaters sweeping destructively through the city of Toowoomba and down into the Lockyer Valley on its way to Brisbane, resulting in devastation of property and a significant loss of life.
As a result of these tropical deluges, many tour companies, visitor centres and motels close completely between November and March, or at least during January and February. But it’s not all bad news; this water (that’s scarce at other times of the year) revives dormant seeds and fast-growing desert flowers. During winter, expect hot days and cool, star-filled nights.